With high expectations in the gift-giving department, the approach of Valentine’s Day can be a stressful time. There’s already pressure to make a thoughtful romantic gesture, but the stakes rise when one is admittedly inept when it comes to making retail decisions.
Enter the era of the personal stylist, or style consultant, or wardrobe therapist – they go by many names. They are the new generation of personal shoppers; gone are the days when the ber-busy exec rings up a shopper to “go out and find my spouse something” or simply say, “I need an outfit for that gala this weekend.” Though those services still exist, people are increasingly looking for a more integrated experience concerning shopping and personal style.
When it comes to finding a gift for clients’ partners, a consultant will often shop along with his or her clients to ensure they’re part of the process – the gift is from them, after all, explains Sasha McLaughlin. She is one half of The Retail Therapists, a style consulting outfit she runs with partner Marliss Weber.
Better yet: Couples can try out a consultation together. McLaughlin recalls some of her most memorable clients coming in pairs.
She describes one duo in which the woman was very fashion-savvy and comfortable with makeup and hairstyling, but her counterpart was the polar opposite. McLaughlin ended up taking them to one store, where they had an absolute blast. Next was the hair makeover and, by the end of the day, the couple was beaming.
“We got big hugs at the end, and both of them stood a little taller at end of the day,” says McLaughlin. “For us, that was a huge experience.”
As shopping for partners goes, the best tip that the pros can offer is to think about what makes both of you look and feel great.
“Be open to what your partner would love to see you in, and that could be a good gift in itself,” says McLaughlin. “I mean, even if you know he likes your legs, you could find something that you’re comfortable in and that he’s going to love as well. It’s like when a man puts a suit on for his wife. It really is nice to see him looking great.”
“I don’t think the era of the traditional personal shopping is over, but I think people want to be more involved in their purchases. I find clients want the experience of shopping with a personal stylist, because they can learn a lot from them,” says Marie Zydek, who offers wardrobe styling services and also writes a style advice blog, Marie a la Mode. Zydek starts the process by interviewing her client to determine what kind of wardrobe would suit him or her. This way, the client ends up with an array of outfits, but also gains hands-on experience in shopping for what works. “Basically what we do is personal branding,” says McLaughlin. “Clients that come to us are kind of lost in the fashion world, or stuck in a rut. A lot of them don’t see themselves as being polished or as professional as they truly are.”
While consultants do offer conventional personal shopping services – Holt Renfrew still offers the old-school service, too – the majority of clientele prefers the more contemporary premise: Consultants who teach people how to shop. To put a new twist on the old adage: Give a man a suit, dress him for a day. Teach a man to dress himself – well, you get the idea.
“Men actually seem to have an easier time coming forward with the fact that they need help with fashion, which we did not anticipate,” says McLaughlin. “It was pretty funny. Men in particular were the ones to say, ‘I don’t know. Just help.'”
Their clients run the gamut from moms returning to the workforce after raising kids to grad students entering the professional world to public figures who only started considering personal style after getting elected.
“One client was a young guy who had moved out to Fort McMurray to an oil-and-gas-type job,” explains Lazina McKenzie, a style and personal branding consultant who runs L2 Style. “He was 28, a hard-working guy, and he said, ‘I don’t want to look like that young skate kid anymore.’I helped him develop a whole new look; it changed his life. He went away looking like a man.”
Southgate Centre even offers an in-house version of the service. Mall patrons can sign up for a two-hour, one-on-one stylist appointment in exchange for a $20 donation to Suit Yourself, a charitable organization that collects quality clothing for women entering the workforce.
Brittanee Tomkow is one of two full-time stylists employed at Southgate. Much like Zydek’s service, Southgate’s begins with a consultation, then the stylist and client take a stroll around the mall together – with no pressure to buy a single thing. The point is to get familiar with the direction a stylist would advise for you.
“I think shopping is tricky for a lot of people,” Tomkow says. “It can be overwhelming to try and decipher what’s going to work and fit. I think that’s mostly the stress of it.”
“A lot of people have this idea that shopping is a daunting, horrifying experience,” adds McLaughlin. “But when we take our clients out to specific stores and have fun with them, they realize it doesn’t have to take forever.”
McKenzie notes that common hang-ups for clients are the sizes on tags – or what people assume the size tag should say – the tendency to buy in neutrals like black or grey, and the hesitation to try out cuts of garments that they’re not in the habit of wearing.
“If you know a store doesn’t fit you, don’t go back,” says Tomkow. “I also think people also don’t try on enough. Just knowing what silhouettes work well on your body type is key.”
“The journey is helping people not to discover a level of confidence, but to uncover it,” says McKenzie.
“That’s why we do it, because it does tend to transform lives,” adds McLaughlin. “Even though it seems like it’s on a superficial level, it’s not. We try to bring who they are on the inside to the surface.”